To Protect. And Serve.

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: February 2013
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Cheap electricity and a disaster-averse climate make Phoenix a server-farm hot spot.

“This is India,” Go Daddy facility manager Rene LeBlanc says, pointing to a rack of 10 flat digital boxes. Lest you imagine a tiny Taj Mahal encased in one of the suitcase-sized devices, LeBlanc is speaking metaphorically. These are the computer servers that represent Go Daddy’s call center on the subcontinent.

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Here at the web-hosting company’s Phoenix data center, embedded in a nondescript 12-acre warehouse at a secret location near Sky Harbor, thousands of such servers keep the gears of Go Daddy turning day and night. To protect the equipment, LeBlanc and his staff maintain a fanatically clean, climate-controlled workspace. Guests are accompanied by a mist-sprayer to keep the air Starbucks-patio-moist and prevent a static charge that could damage chips. A green dispenser offers disposable blue earplugs for protection against the roar of the air-conditioning.

Step behind a server rack and you can feel the heat generated by the exchange of terabytes of information (one terabyte being the equivalent of an iPod with about 250,000 songs). Pointing to a rack of half a dozen servers, LeBlanc says: “That’s five houses,” in terms of annual energy consumption.

Given its famously toasty temperatures, Phoenix might seem an unlikely locale for a climate-controlled technology warehouse. In fact, it’s one of the most common. Dozens of companies have planted these “server farms” in the Valley, including eBay, Toyota, JPMorgan Chase, and State Farm. Progressive business magazine Fast Company calls Phoenix “the Silicon Valley of data security,” on which hangs the fate of every web page, tweet, Facebook “like,” or YouTube cat video.

Our lack of earthquakes, tsunamis and natural disasters in general is a selling point for server farms, as is the relatively inexpensive electricity. “The cost per megawatt in California is in the $5 million per year range,” says Richard Reyher, eBay’s senior manager for global data services. “In Phoenix it’s just half of that.” Because of costs, eBay is moving data centers out of California to Salt Lake City, Denver, and Phoenix. The company’s new data center on Third Street and Indian School Road is called “Project Mercury,”  named to evoke both Phoenix’s heat and the center’s lickety-split processing speed.

Some server companies do prefer naturally cool places like Norway. But for U.S. customers, a domestic location saves user-processing time. “If you’re working on the Internet or using eBay… you don’t want to wait two or three [extra] seconds,” says Kevin Malik, chief information officer of Phoenix-based IO, one of the world’s largest data-center companies.

Another reason Phoenix has become a prime data-site: a major fiber-optic artery under the street near the Go Daddy center, according to Auguste Goldman, Go Daddy’s  Chief Information Officer. Dubbed “the Rodeo Drive of the Internet,” this super-conductor of information helps Go Daddy and other providers respond quicker to every mouse-click. 

Because of competition and security, companies are secretive about their data centers – Go Daddy fends off 70,000 attempted cyber-attacks per hour, Goldman says. Thus, hard stats about the number of server farms in the Valley is sketchy. But Valley insiders say information-warehousing is a rising industry that employs thousands – an anonymous but integral army of information nannies.

Examining a row of LED lights on the narrow spine of a warehouse server – each light representing a website – LeBlanc says he and his staff are perfectly at ease with their behind-the-scenes role: “If [customers] don’t know we exist, we’re doing our job.”

How Green Is Your Data?
Data centers gobble between 1.5 and 3 percent of the planet’s energy, according to a much-cited Greenpeace report. That’s why data-center companies are moving away from large centers towards self-contained, individually-cooled containers. Valley-based firm IO sells software to adjust a center’s cooling system and other settings, while Elliptical Mobile Solutions in Chandler has sold portable, economical “data-bunkers” for years (see “Techie Knights,” PHOENIX Magazine, November 2012). And if energy is a worry, so is keeping the data flowing during a disaster. At AOL’s data-center in Dulles, Virginia, Elliptical’s bunkers “performed wonderfully through Hurricane Sandy,” according to an AOL official.